Editorial | Centre’s backdoor leash to gag media an affront to democracy

If the rule comes into effect, a situation will arise wherein anything considered by the PIB as fake will have to be taken down from online platforms, including social media. Photo: it:Rawf8/Shutterstock.

It is as vital a duty of the media to expose the errors and failures of the government, as it is to inform the nation about the positive aspects of governance.

The responsibility of the media in a democracy is evident from the fact that it is termed as the Opposition.

Therefore, it is unfortunate that there is an increasing tendency among rulers to applaud the media when the news is in their favour and to gag it when the media turns critical.

The latest threat to the media is from the draft provision in the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which gives the Press Information Bureau (PIB) of the Central government the power to decide whether any piece of news is true or not.

If it comes into effect, a situation will arise wherein anything considered by the PIB as fake will have to be taken down from online platforms, including social media.

The Centre is preparing to bring the crucial amendment and a draft of the amendment has been published, seeking opinions from all stakeholders.

The concern is that intolerance of the government towards criticism will lead to the misuse of the official provision under the garb of fact-checking.

Any situation in which the government is empowered to decide which piece of news is fake will, in effect, morph into censorship.

Social media companies must take action within 72 hours on complaints seeking to remove seven types of content, including vulgarity and impersonation.

News found to be fake has also been included in this category. The Centre had made it clear earlier that the time limit would be shortened to 24 hours gradually.

News published after gathering it from different sources could be stamped as fake if it is not favourable to the government.  

It is of serious concern that this provision could be misused to remove news perceived as critical of the Centre.

There is no dispute the misdeeds of those who publish indecorous content on social media should be checked through strict measures.

But, there is not even an iota of doubt that the proposed amendment is out of sync with a democratic society. If fake news is published, it needs to be pointed out.

But, would the PIB, which stands in for the Central government, be doing just that?

Could news critical of the government be tagged fake just on that premise? Should the government decide what is to be published or not?

The Editors’ Guild has expressed its concern over the draft provision of the IT Rules, making it clear the move is aimed at undermining the independent functioning of the media and giving autocratic powers to the PIB, and that it would have far-reaching consequences.  

In a democracy, it is of prime importance for the media to vigilantly scrutinise the working of the government and bring the facts to the attention of the citizens.

The new recommendations for amendment will affect this in a contrarian manner.

The Editors’ Guild, which points out that the draft provision amounts to strangling criticism against the government, has demanded that the draft recommendation be withdrawn and that the government must come forward for discussions.

The Supreme Court has affirmed many times that if democracy is to be meaningful, its freedom should be protected.

The fundamental right to free speech guaranteed by the Constitution acts as the shield for the freedom of the media.

It should not be under a stranglehold in any circumstance.

Let us remember once again it was the Father of the Nation who visualised media freedom as an invaluable right no nation should lose.

The Central government must prove its commitment to media freedom and the people, realising that the present amendment is an affront to democracy and the interests of the nation.

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